In the Four Corners region of New Mexico, a conflict over money, power and sovereign rights has grown ugly
By Kate Trainor
Like many of her Navajo neighbors in Burnham, N.M., Victoria Alba has no electricity or running water in her home. Yet, from her window, she can see the permanent black cloud that hovers low over the landscape, belched from the two coal-burning power plants nearby.
Mere miles from Mesa Verde National Park exist two of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the nation, the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant. The plants supply power to big Southwestern cities, among them Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Plans for a third coal-fired plant are underway, with corporate lobbyists pushing for rapid legislative approval before state emissions standards get more stringent.
Big Plans in Burnham
The proposed plant, dubbed the Desert Rock Energy Project, is one of 154 new power plants slated for construction in the U.S. over the next decade. The prospective site of the Desert Rock plant is on Navajo land, 25 miles southwest of Farmington. The Navajo government and the Diné Power Authority, a Navajo entity, have partnered with Sithe Global, the multimillion-dollar corporate mastermind of the 1,500-megawatt plant. Eighty percent of Sithe Global is owned by the Blackstone Group, a billion-dollar investment firm based in New York City.
The Navajo government approved the proposal for the plant in a 66-7 vote, but many Navajo people, including Alba, oppose Desert Rock, citing environmental and health concerns, as well as a threat to Navajos' sacred land and culture.
“It’s going to take away our land, our Mother Earth, our ancestral sites and the sacred holy places,” says Elouise Brown, president of the Dooda Desert Rock Committee, a grassroots movement to stop Desert Rock (Dooda means “no” in Navajo). “It’s all there, on the building site, and that’s what they’re going to destroy.”
Cash to Save a Native Culture
George Hardeen, communications director for Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr., believes the power plant is necessary to protect Navajo culture, which, he says, has long been endangered by a depressed economy. Desert Rock will develop the economy; help preserve the Navajo culture, the Navajo language, the Navajo way of life; encourage people to stay on the Navajo reservation; and continue Navajo,” he says.
Hardeen argues that Navajo culture will perish if it doesn’t stay apace with the Western economy. “The Navajo Nation has moved with the rest of the world into the Western age. That means you’ve gotta have money, education, economic viability. Without that, all that’s best about Navajo will inevitably be lost.”
The Nation, Hardeen says, has “moved from a trading economy to a cash economy,” and can no longer rely solely on its pastimes for income. “It would be great if we could use Overstock.com only to generate the Navajo economy through Navajo arts and crafts, and teachings, but it simply can’t be done,” he said. “Navajos will leave for employment, and they’re doing it. To help keep them here, we need good employment. And the best employment right now, unfortunately, has been coal mining.”
Sithe, however, hasn’t guaranteed exclusive employment of Navajos at the proposed plant. If Desert Rock does provide work to Navajos, critics of the plant predict that the jobs will be in construction, coal mining and other poorly paid, potentially dangerous positions.
Hardeen, however, has a more hopeful outlook. “We’re not just hoping that Navajos become the coal miners, the truck drivers and the burrito ladies at Desert Rock. It’s the hope that they’re the engineers; they’re the plant managers; they are the people doing most of the work there.”
Ultimately, Hardeen believes the plant will provide the economic boost the Navajo Nation needs to regain independence. “This is not just economic development,” he says. “This is mega economic development. There’s nothing that could compare to something as big as building a power plant.”
Dirty Plans For a “Clean” State
Environmentalists and public health officials disagree, noting that renewable energy is a viable--and profitable--alternative to coal. Many states, including New Mexico, are embracing greener, sustainable and renewable sources of energy.
In December of 2006, Gov. Bill Richardson signed an executive order on climate change that outlined strategies to reduce the state’s emissions and declared New Mexico the “Clean Energy State.” The order included a plan to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 267 million metric tons and create a projected $2 billion net economic savings for New Mexico’s economy.”
In a press release issued by the governor’s office, Richardson called climate change “the major environmental issue of our time. Nothing poses a bigger threat to our water, our livelihood and our quality of life than a warming climate.” The governor has yet to comment on the proposed Desert Rock power plant.
Sithe Global maintains that Desert Rock would use the “cleanest technology” to burn coal, but critics say this so-called “clean technology” is antiquated. Sandy Buffet, executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, says Sithe’s claim to “clean technology” is “like saying this is the best available passenger safety technology for an Edsel. Pulverized coal is a 19th-century technology.”
Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico staff organizer for San Juan Citizen’s Alliance, a grassroots environmental group, says the Four Corners region of the state is already polluted from the other two coal-fired power plants in the area.
“Desert Rock would produce 10.5 million tons per year of carbon dioxide,” says Eisenfeld. “Add that onto 29 million tons per year coming out of San Juan and Four Corners, and it’s not a clean power plant. It’s comparing itself to 1970s technology, and it’s something that we would be stuck with for 50 years. Desert Rock would be the second-highest emitter of carbon dioxide among new power plants, and that’s according to the EPA and Sithe’s own numbers.”
Impacts: High Pollution and Health Hazards
Eisenfeld suspects the impacts of Desert Rock would be devastating. Already, he says, “high atmospheric and depositional mercury are showing up in the food chain. We have very significant haze and visibility issues that have become worse and worse. A lot of our waters are now off limits to fish consumption. There’s a high rate of respiratory illnesses, we have an immense problem with mercury.” The EPA has yet to publish an environmental impact statement on Desert Rock.
If Desert Rock is realized, environmentalists estimate the plant will generate an additional 13.7 million tons of global warming pollution per year. (Power plants, scientists say, are the prime sources of global warming pollution.) The plant’s proposed air permit does not include emission limits for mercury, and Desert Rock could emit an estimated 114 to 555 pounds of mercury per year. The San Juan and Four Corners plants emit 770 and 851 pounds of mercury per year, respectively.
Health officials warn that the new plant would increase rates of asthma and fetal brain damage, among other health risks. John Fogarty, MD, of the New Mexico Physicians for Social Responsibility, likens Sithe’s supposed “clean technology” to “putting a filter on a cigarette and saying it won’t cause lung cancer.”
Give Me a (Tax) Break
Sithe Global is asking the state of New Mexico to subsidize Desert Rock with an $85 million tax credit. Already, the Navajo Nation has agreed to forgive 67 percent of the taxes Sithe would owe on the estimated $3 billion construction. Last year, Sithe asked the state for a $65 million tax break, but, ultimately, the proposal didn’t pass.
Even with an $85 million dollar tax credit—amounting to millions in lost revenue for both the state and the Navajo Nation—Sithe claims it will be “one of the largest taxpayers on the Navajo Nation.” Sithe estimates the annual benefits to the Navajo Nation will exceed $50 million, more than a third of the Navajo Nation’s existing budget.
But Alba and other Desert Rock opponents wonder if the Navajo people, of whom 30 percent do not have running water or electricity, will reap the benefits of this revenue, or if it will remain in the pockets of their government, Sithe Global and the Blackstone Group.
“Those who live in the area haven’t been listened to,” says Bonnie Worthington, a Navajo from Burnham who opposes the plant. “We have no civil rights on the Navajo Nation. We who have been impacted have no rights. The Navajo government has absolute rule over the nation, the people.”
Hardeen says he hopes profits from the power plant will be allocated to improve the scarce social resources on Navajo reservations. As of yet, however, “no specific plans for use of revenue are in place.”
Will Sithe Stick Around?
Proponents of Desert Rock say the plant will supply power to the growing cities of Phoenix and Las Vegas, though no contracts are secured at present. PNM says it has no intention of purchasing power from the Desert Rock plant. The plant does not meet new California emissions standards, creating concerns that if Arizona or Nevada toughen emissions standards, they’ll revoke their patronage of the Desert Rock plant.
If the plant is no longer profitable—or falls short of improved state standards--critics fear that Sithe will abandon Desert Rock, leaving the Navajo Nation, and the State of New Mexico, with an environmental and economic albatross. “Gains are privatized and losses are socialized,” explains Buffet. “This plant is being pushed as a 50-year plant. So, when Arizona, Nevada and California all have standards that say they’re only going to buy advanced, cleaner coal, the Navajo Nation is going to end up with a white elephant project where they can’t sell power to anybody. That is a financial risk that our taxpayers should not be underwriting.”
In February, Sithe sold a coal-fired power plant to the state of Pennsylvania, which has raised doubts that the corporation would stick around to clean up a potential emissions mess in New Mexico.
The Big Guns Target Granny
Although plans for the Desert Rock plant have been pending for about three years, it wasn’t until late December of 2006 that the issue gained widespread attention. On a winter day just before Christmas, Navajo elder Alice Gilmore, accompanied by other Navajo elders, established a camp at a cement blockade erected by Sithe on the Burnham reservation, on the outskirts of Gilmore’s land. Gilmore says Sithe provoked the protest after they prevented her from accessing land for which she holds a grazing permit.
Despite her repeated refusal to relinquish her permit, Sithe proceeded with its plans to use Gilmore’s land as part of its construction site. Gilmore and fellow resisters were served temporary restraining orders on behalf of the Diné Power Authority and Sithe Global, on the grounds that they were interfering with business and trespassing. Some Navajos in Burnham report that they have been harassed and bribed by Sithe, but the accusations are unconfirmed. Navajo resisters have remained at the Burnham blockade, protesting Sithe’s presence.
A Small Victory, But Burnham Still Fights
Following a month of legislative hearings in the state House of Representatives, the bill to approve Desert Rock was thrown out after Energy and Natural Resources Chairman James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, changed his vote. Madalena says he was swayed by the potential environmental impacts of the plant and by the presence of the Navajo people who oppose Desert Rock.
Many Navajos from Burnham have been lobbying at the Capitol over the last four weeks, attending hearings adorned in blanket coats, turquoise and stickers that say, “No Desert Rock!” Sithe hasn’t yet surrendered its plight to erect the power plant, as the bill could pass through the Senate. Still, if the Senate denies Sithe its desired tax breaks, the corporation could proceed with its plans for Desert Rock. Despite Sithe’s persistence and corporate power, the Navajo from Burnham aren’t budging. “The power plant is not going to happen,” said Brown. “Because that’s what we believe.”
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